It’s getting to be that I’m afraid to leave the house. I mean, you never know when you’re going to run into a hitman. If you see movies on a regular basis, you know what I’m talking about. They seem to be everywhere, and they’re often going through personal problems that affect their work. But few cinematic assassins have been quite as beleaguered as the one in Knox Goes Away, receiving its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Michael Keaton, who also directed the film, plays John Knox, a contract killer diagnosed with a rare disease causing full-onset dementia within a matter of weeks. And that’s only one of his problems.
Another is the sudden reappearance of his estranged adult son Miles (James Marsden, not underplaying), who shows up at his home covered in blood and begging for help covering up the brutal murder he’s just committed. Which is really just terrible timing. Clearly, screenwriter Michael Poirier isn’t content to have just one high-concept plotline; he’s gotta have two. The problem is that neither one is remotely convincing.
Knox Goes Away
The Bottom Line
Keaton’s as good as ever, but the plot sinks it.
The first hints of Knox’s medical condition are presented when he sits down for a meal at a diner with his partner in killing (Ray McKinnon, making a strong impression in his brief screen time) and orders a cup of coffee even though he already has one. It becomes even more evident when the two fulfill an assignment and Knox accidentally kills both his partner and an innocent bystander. He quickly attempts to make it all look like a murder-suicide, but uncharacteristically makes several mistakes.
The grim official diagnosis prompts Knox to start wrapping up his affairs, including arranging to launder his ill-gotten gains through a helpful fence (Dennis Dugan). But things get complicated after his son tells him what he’s just done.
Ever the pragmatist, Knox’s first response is to ask, “Did they deserve killing?”
Well, yes, since the victim was a white supremacist who had been sleeping with Knox’s teenage granddaughter, whom he has never met. Knox graciously agrees to clean up the mess, beginning with going to the murder scene and leaving evidence implicating his son.
Wait, what? Is Knox trying to help his son, or get revenge? We learn that Knox has a military background, specializing in “deep reconnaissance,” and that he has not one but two PhDs. So he’s clearly a brilliant guy. Is it the dementia kicking in?
Investigating both Knox’s and his son’s killings is a tough-as-nails female detective (an enjoyable Suzy Nakamura), who demonstrates her macho bona fides by asking a smiling male colleague, “You just get a hand job?”
The convoluted storyline is too clever by far, and might have proved entertaining if the film had been intended as an absurdist black comedy. Unfortunately, Keaton goes in a more neo-noir direction, with the generally grim tone only accentuating the narrative absurdities. The actor, who previously directed 2008’s The Merry Gentleman (in which he played a suicidal hitman, leaving you to wonder about his taste in material), does a technically competent job, employing a variety of stylistic tricks, including blackouts and other visual effects, to illustrate his character’s growing confusion. And, as always, he delivers a terrific performance, conveying Knox’s steely toughness, resigned acceptance of his fate and growing vulnerability in compelling fashion.
Al Pacino, in a supporting role as Xavier, Knox’s elderly mentor who likes to eat Chinese food in the bathtub, has the right idea, infusing his entertaining turn with a twinkling humor that lets you know he’s in on the joke. (When Knox asks Xavier to bring his loot to the fence, he asks, “You know I’m a thief, right?). Whenever Pacino’s onscreen, he gives you an idea of the better movie that Knox Goes Down might have been.